Let me start here: The intentions of the Jaguars, their new coach and football czar Urban Meyer and newest player, tight-end prospect Tim Tebow, are good.
All of us on the outside can make it something else. A circus. A farce. Whatever.
I can say with certainty neither Meyer nor Tebow is approaching this with the intention of it being anything approximating that. The Jaguars staff allotted seven spots for tight ends on the 90-man roster and were carrying just five coming out of the draft. They also earmarked the spot, off film, as a weakness to work on early in the offseason and have gotten faster and stronger there since.
And it’s within that context that Tebow was going to have to earn a contract. Everyone in the building knows—and it’s no secret to the rest of us, either—how Meyer feels about the guy he won two national titles with down the road in Gainesville. But just that wasn’t going to be enough to get Tebow a helmet, jersey and invitation to OTAs. Which is why offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen, I’m told, were commandeered to run the workouts Jacksonville put Tebow through over the last few weeks.
In turn, Bevell and Bowen, based on the improvement they saw from each workout to the next, and the shape Tebow’s in, felt like he could compete for a spot on the 53-man roster that Meyer will take into his first season as Jaguars coach. And really, at this time of year, that’s the baseline criteria veteran street free agents have to meet to get a contract.
Now, look back through all of that—a player on the fringes of the NFL, a connection to the head coach, a string of tryouts and, ultimately, a contract—and you’ll see that this played out, with one of the most famous football players on the planet, the way dozens of other situations do in the NFL annually.
And that brings us to the challenge here for everyone involved. Can they make it normal? Can they turn Tebow into Employee No. 85, a guy just looking for a shot? Or is that just sort of impossible?
“Urban has a strong personality. I think he’ll be able to manage all that,” said Mike Tannenbaum, who was the Jets GM when Tebow was there as Mark Sanchez’s backup quarterback in 2012. “I mean, we’re talking about a backup tight end here, from a football standpoint. But he’s going to have a significant presence. There’s no ways about that. That’s just the cost of doing business with Tim.”
On Thursday, in signing him to a contract and putting him on the practice field, the Jaguars told all of us they’re willing to foot that bill.
What’s less certain here is the actual cost, and potential benefit, ahead for the team.
It being May, we’re going to take a look at few big picture things in this week’s GamePlan …
• We’ll kick off our awards series with Defensive Rookie of the Year rankings.
• We’ll look at the quarterback empowerment movement afoot in the NFL.
• And we’ll give you a postmortem on the cost of the 2020 opt-out for college players.
But thanks to Thursday morning’s news, it’s Tebow Time off the top.
After his offense had been held to five first downs, three points and 109 yards, and with the first half winding down, then Broncos coach John Fox pushed the button on his belt buckle and said into his headset, “We’re gonna make a change at halftime, who do you guys want in there?”
One after another, his assistants got back to him: Brady, Brady, Quinn, Quinn, Brady.
“F--- it, I’m going with Tebow,” Fox responded.
Whether the decision was the right one in that moment remains, a decade later, debatable. Tebow went 4-for-10 for 79 yards the rest of the way. But the running game rolled a little (Tebow had 36 yards on five carries, and Willis McGahee had 51 on seven carries after the break), and Denver rallied. In the end, Tebow had the ball in his hands and was throwing for a miracle he didn’t get, in what ended up being a 29–24 loss to the Chargers.
The defeat itself was unremarkable for a team falling to 1–4. But the reaction to it was a different story altogether.
“At the end of it, he throws the ball in the end zone to win the game, and we’d been down 20. And we still lost,” Fox says now. “So we lose the game. It’s a division game, crazy fans, we’re walking out of the stadium, and they’re chanting for him. Then, if you’ve ever come out of that stadium, at Mile High, it’s like the fans are up above on this overhang, and these people are going crazy. And we lost the game!
“It was almost similar to the walk-off, overtime touchdown against Pittsburgh. It was that crazy. And we lost. For a guy to command that kind of fan support in a loss was kind of amazing. That was when we kind of thought, we might have something here.”
Most of you know the rest of the story of the 2011 Broncos: “I coached in the league for 30 years; it was probably the most fun and interesting, just-great-to-be-a-part-of season I’ve ever been involved in,” Fox says—and how much wilder that year got from there.
And we’re not retelling that part of the story just to retell it. We’re retelling it to explain that, back then at least, there was really nothing anyone, even Tebow himself, could do to stop Tebowmania. It got so out of control that at one point the Broncos would send an intern out to pull Tebow’s car around, as Tebow snuck out a side door off the team’s auditorium, so he wouldn’t have to navigate through autograph seekers waiting outside the players’ gate.
Everyone who was there for that year has stories from it, and most of them are pretty positive. One I heard just Thursday had Tebow going to the Broncos staff after beating the Jets on a Thursday night, and asking if there was a high school game locally he could go to that Friday night (on a long weekend most players took off for) just to talk to the kids and wish them luck, with the Broncos then doing what they could to sneak him out there for it.
It was positive, too, because the results for everyone were good. The team won the division, Tebow’s presence gave a franchise that had become stagnant renewed juice, and the young QB’s crossover appeal was affirmed with his appearance on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world (he was the only NFL player to make it).
The other side of the coin came up the following year.
The Broncos landed Peyton Manning, and the Jets traded for Tebow—which happened upon Tebow’s choice, with the quarterback spurning his hometown Jaguars for New York after hearing owner Shad Khan wanted him there and the football people didn’t. Tebow liked that the Jets wanted him for football reasons, and the Jets, in turn, figured they could handle all the noise, since they’d been through helicopter coverage of Brett Favre’s first year away from the Packers in 2008. That, it turned out, was a poor assumption on their part.
Tannenbaum even now struggles to explain why it was so hard to contain the hype around the former Heisman winner, or even articulate why it’s there in the first place.
“You just know it when you see it,” Tannenbaum said of the hype. “He’s one of these people, everyone has strong opinion, good or bad, on him. It was just a unique situation. He’s a good person, he wants to do well, but everyone has a strong opinion on him. We had Brett Favre, and I’m telling you, this was dramatically bigger than that. …
“I thought going into it we had a good idea of what would happen, because we had Favre, but this was a whole different level.”
And eventually, Tannenbaum continued, that cost of business he referenced caught up with the Jets.
“There was a story every day about him,” he said. “And that wasn’t real fair to Mark Sanchez, and it wasn’t fair to the team.”
The interesting thing is that, really, it wasn’t like that at Tebow’s final two stops before he gave up on quarterbacking for good—and maybe that tells part of the story here too. Both Bill Belichick in 2013 and Chip Kelly in 2015 were effectively able to keep Tebow hysteria at bay through training camps before cutting him near the final roster reduction, and both Belichick and Kelly are close confidants of Meyer’s.
In this circumstance, despite their relationship, Meyer hasn’t guaranteed anything to Tebow, outside of a chance to compete for a job. And seeing as though Tebow will be 34 on opening day and has never played tight end, the likelihood remains that this will end the same way Tebow’s shots at landing jobs in Foxboro and Philly did.
That said, it’s not hard to read into either guy’s motivations here.
Tebow’s likely at the tail end of his window to be a professional athlete, and once the ability to be one goes, it’s gone forever. So that a guy who’s spent his adult life in sports would want to keep going until the wheels fall off should be unsurprising to everyone. In fact, it just puts Tebow on a track to meet his end as a pro athlete the same way 99% of all pro athletes find theirs—while giving it every shot he can to hang on.
As for Meyer, bringing in Tebow means finding a sort of evangelist for his program, and someone who embodies the culture he’s looking to build by checking off boxes in effort, toughness, selflessness and strength-and-speed training. He also is, for all his football faults, what Meyer idealizes in looking at any player—an elite competitor.
And in those ways, this test drive of this Hummer of a football player whom Meyer once rode to championships makes perfect sense.
But there are potentially potholes, too, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Jaguars plan to evade those. The first is the most obvious one we’ve spent the last couple thousand words describing. It’s everything that comes with Tebow. If he’s a starting quarterback, or just a really good player, it could be a mild annoyance. If he doesn’t show well, that’s where having to answer questions about the guy constantly, and deal with other elements of the circus, could be more of an issue.
And the second piece dovetails right into that. Meyer is going to preach meritocracy in his program, like lots of coaches do, and try to capture credibility in his locker room. Tebow can help on that, in accepting the sort of place that a rookie free agent would have, and in telling others of his experience with Meyer. That could get flipped on its head, though, if the Tebow experiment looks messy early and doesn’t get better over time.
Simply put, Meyer can’t afford to have the perception fester that one of his favorite players ever is there on scholarship or being held to a different standard than everyone else. That’s why, as I see it, Tebow’s making progress visible to other players is going to be important.
Fact is, just as there’s a lot on the line for Tebow here (basically his existence as a pro athlete), there’s a lot on the line for Meyer, too, as he gets started in Jacksonville. I can comfortably say all of that was measured before the Jaguars made this move.
They are also surely aware that a lot of people will be watching where this goes next. And when you put all this together, they have to know that the most important sets of eyes among them belong to guys in that locker room.
Ultimately, how it affects them will determine whether the benefit here was worth the cost.
We’re going to start our 2021 award series today! We did this last year, and for accountability’s sake—and so you all know—I had Chase Young as my DROY favorite, Joe Burrow as OROY favorite, Aaron Donald as DPOY favorite, Mike McCarthy as COY favorite and Deshaun Watson as MVP favorite. So I got two right. And we’ll start, like we did last year, with my Defensive Rookie of the Year list (and the sportsbettingdime.com odds listed).
1) Jamin Davis, LB, Washington (+1200): Ron Rivera’s history with young linebackers is outstanding. Luke Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and was All-Pro by Year 2. Thomas Davis’s career took off under Rivera’s watch, and Shaq Thompson went from project to core player in a few years’ time. Athletically, the 19th pick is on par with all those guys. And in a year lacking the clear favorite last year brought, Davis is a pretty good bet to be a really good player right away.
2) Jaelan Phillips, DE, Dolphins (+700): Every team I talked to said absent some off-field questions (and Phillips was accountable to all those), Phillips was a top-10 talent in the draft. The only thing that gives me trepidation here is that Brian Flores’s defense tends to spread the sack production around, and sacks are generally what edge guys are judged on.
3) Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys (+400): I’ll go on past history here too, and seeing what Dan Quinn was able to do with young (at the time) linebackers like Bobby Wagner and Deion Jones in previous spots. Parsons is an incredible talent, and the fact that Dallas has a pretty experienced linebacker room to begin with (Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith) should free the coaches up to use Parsons every which way.
4) Kwity Paye, DE, Colts (+1000): I think this is where a need matches up with a mature kid who’s going to be ready to hit the ground running as a pro. Over the last four years, one thing Indy GM Chris Ballard hasn’t been able to do is add young war-daddy pass rushers. Paye will get every shot to prove he can be one.
5) Patrick Surtain II, CB, Broncos (+1000): Rookie corners often take time to get their footing, but Surtain’s as ready for the pros as any player in his class and will be playing behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb in a corner-friendly scheme. But full disclosure, I did consider slotting the Browns’ Greg Newsome (+2000!) here, because I believe he’ll benefit from Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney rushing, and Denzel Ward and Troy Hill being alongside him at corner.
THE BIG QUESTION
Has the way quarterbacks approach their teams changed forever?
I think the answer is yes, and former Eagles and Browns exec Joe Banner had an interesting take on it on my podcast this week—by comparing where we are now against where we were when he was managing a roster with a franchise quarterback, Donovan McNabb, on it.
“Things have changed a lot,” Banner said. “And I don’t think it’s a change that’s unique to the quarterback position, I think that the quarterbacks reflect the players’ increasing understanding of the amount of power and leverage they can have if used. And obviously within that context no one would have more power or leverage than the quarterbacks, because it’s so hard to be good there and it’s so crucial to a team’s success.
“It’s almost a predictable outcome of the players’ starting to assert themselves more and realize the power they have if they want to use it. And, of course, who’s going to have more of that than the star players in the league? I think that’s what we’re seeing and I don’t think it’s going to go backwards. I actually think it’s going to keep heading in this direction, and, if anything, pick up more momentum as opposed to going back to what some might think are the good old days.”
I’d encourage you to give the episode a listen, because Banner went deep into how he and the Eagles handled McNabb back in the day, in informing him on looming personnel moves and gathering his input on players (something Banner called “modest” star treatment), while also telling us what he’d do if he were the Packers, Seahawks or Texans right now.
I think what you’ll see is the likelihood this, in the end, won’t wind up being just an Aaron Rodgers story, or a Russell Wilson story or a Deshaun Watson story. Or a Matthew Stafford or Carson Wentz story.
Ultimately, I think this will put pressure on every team that has a franchise quarterback to keep that quarterback happy—and not assume that he’ll just be there for 15 years without incident, regardless of what’s happening around him. And to be clear, I don’t think this exists with every quarterback who gets to a big second contract.
As I see it, it’ll probably be the guys who get those deals, and are good enough where, despite the high price tag, other teams would come in and trade high-end draft capital plus take on a giant contract to get them. Patrick Mahomes, obviously, would be in that category. Josh Allen’s closing in on it. Justin Herbert sure looks like he’s going to get there, as does Joe Burrow. And no one’s doubting Lawrence has a great shot at being one of these guys, too.
It’ll be interesting to follow going forward, and the stakes only rose with what Tom Brady just pulled off—orchestrating, through a contract negotiation, his own free agency, then going to a place that would commit to building aggressively around him on a go-for-broke timeline, and after that winning the whole damn thing.
It’d be silly to think other guys wouldn’t look at that and think, I want my team to build around me like that. It’d also be unrealistic to think they wouldn’t consider that, for the next few years, that’s what they’re going to be up against.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
The fate of the 2020 opt-outs …
I think it’s fair now to look back on the decisions made by some collegiate football players, and for others, on playing in the fall—and whether Steelers GM Kevin Colbert’s predraft words manifested league-wide. In case you missed it, in April, in discussing guys who did play in 2020 vs. those who didn’t, Colbert told the Pittsburgh media, “If I have a choice, and we have a choice, we’ll take the one that played, if their value is close.”
And the hard look I took led me to a nuanced answer. The freakish types (Ja’Marr Chase, Penei Sewell, Micah Parsons, Rashawn Slater) who’d answered most on-field questions, even if there were some lingering doubts on personality, etc., did fine. All four of the guys named there wound up going inside the top 13 picks. Along those lines, new 49ers QB Trey Lance is another example—his season was canceled, he crushed the predraft process, and he went third—of a guy unaffected.
Beyond the elite? I’d say it’s fair to say there was an effect. But I don’t think that was the result of any team being punitive about guys making decisions based on COVID-19.
“It was kind of like, the way we’d talk about it, ‘Man it sucks we didn’t get to see him play,’ ” said one NFC exec. “But it never got to the point where it was like, ‘Let’s take this guy over that guy because this guy actually played.’ ”
With that established, there absolutely was something to lose for the guys who didn’t play, and really that something was something simple—the chance to turn potential into production. This time of year, scouting departments are digging through junior tape, and in most cases there’s a lot to get excited about there, and a lot of development needed. As such, those guys get graded on a bit of a curve.
And as you might imagine, that can mean a guy’s tape in June being seen in a different context the following February, if there’s nothing in between. That’s because by the end of the season, guys those who opted out were competing with for draft position had more tape, and had gotten better and, in some cases, maybe passed a guy or two a team may have liked the previous summer.
“I just think, naturally, if you lose a year of development, you lose a year of getting stronger, getting faster, getting more skilled, getting more experienced,” said another NFC exec. “That adds up. We’re all watching junior tape now, those are our spring projects—so all the guys for next year, we’re watching now. And there’s definitely a difference in what you see now versus what you’ll see next year. They don’t change a ton, but they’re definitely better.
“So with some [of the opt-outs], you found yourself projecting. … A lot of those guys, I think, lost a half a round or a round. There’s no science or data behind that, but it’s just what you lose not having the playing experience. Generally, you’re going to be better the next year in all categories, and I think that equated in how some guys fell.”
Here, then, are a few examples.
• Bills DE Gregory Rousseau: He had 15.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, but feasted on some favorable matchups, and some thought he looked stiff and lacked explosion on tape. He was also much lighter in 2019 than the 266 pounds he weighed at his pro day, so there were questions on how he’d play after putting on a few pounds. “With him,” said our second exec, “you just had to project so much.” If he’d had another year and answered those questions? No way, given his dimensions, he would’ve lasted to the 30th pick.
• Dolphins S Jevon Holland: He was the 36th pick, so it’s not like his stock crashed. But teams viewed him coming out of last spring as a versatile, freakish athlete for the safety spot after his first year starting, and playing another year might’ve afforded him the chance to show more playing a traditional safety role (he was used largely as a slot corner in 2019). By being willing to project him, the Dolphins may wind up hitting big here.
• Jaguars OT Walker Little: With better luck health-wise, it’s not outlandish to think Little could’ve been a top-10 pick in 2021. But after a torn ACL in ’19, and a ’20 opt out, all teams have to go on is his tape from ’17 and ’18 (he was the rare Day 1 left tackle starter as a true freshman), and some 60 pre-injury snaps from his junior year. Which leaves a lot of guesswork.
• Saints CB Paulson Adebo: A tall, rangy corner who wound up running better than people anticipated, but still slipped all the way to the 76th pick—given a full redshirt junior season, it’s fair to say Adebo would’ve had every chance to play his way into the upper reaches of the second round. Another situation where a good personnel department might wind getting a great value.
• Jaguars DT Jay Tufele: A disruptor inside for USC, Tufele slipped to the fourth round in large part because of what he was as a Trojan—a raw athlete learning the nuances of playing his position. Which, obviously, he could have done more of with another year on the field.
• Vikings DT Jaylen Twyman: He played in the 280s at Pitt and wound up weighing 319 pounds at the medical combine, which raised a host of questions on a player who maybe could’ve gone in the third round with a strong final season in college. Twyman ended up going in the Tom Brady spot (199th!) in the sixth round.
• Eagles QB Jamie Newman: He transferred from Wake Forest to Georgia, then opted out during fall camp, and ended up declaring for the draft, then going undrafted. There are some tools there, but NFL people never saw him like the May and June mock drafters did—and it does make you wonder if thinking he’d be drafted early played a role in his decision to come out. If that’s the case … not a great call.
One final interesting thing to add here: You’ll notice the preponderance of Pac-12 guys here, and there’s a reason for that. While conferences like the SEC, Big Ten and ACC showed mercy on guys who signed with agents then decided to go back to school, the Pac-12 was more draconian. Add that to the fact that the conference only played five games, and it’s understandable why some of the players on this list decided just to focus on the draft.
THE FINAL WORD
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell’s name hit the NFL news cycle Thursday morning. As I’ve been telling you for two years now, keep that name filed away. People in the league hold that dude in very high regard.
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